I Think, Therefore I Am
Pain of Salvation Explores What it Means to Be

People don’t like to think.

Okay, before you fire up those email accounts, this is one of those times where I’m going to start with a generalization and then walk back from it. Believe it or not, I use this technique most often to either change my own mind or figure out how I really feel on any given topic. I’ve been saying for years that when it comes to art – music, movies, books, what have you – people don’t like to think. So let’s dance around that for a bit and see if I think it’s true.

I already think that perhaps it may be more true to say that people don’t like to be made to think. Remember the books you had to read in high school? How many of you really enjoyed that experience? I don’t think the unpleasantness came from the books, but from the enforced, mandatory nature of the reading. There are books I have plowed through in an evening, and books I have sloughed through over more than a year’s time, but I’ve set my own pace. Since graduation, no one has rapped my knuckles if I haven’t read three chapters by Monday’s quiz.

I think that many people consider challenging movies and music the same way – as if the artist is forcing them to think. And I believe a large part of that comes from the societal expectation we’ve stapled to music and films, which is the promise of escape. When most Americans go to the movies, they want to relax for two hours, shut down their brains and enjoy themselves. It’s a mentality that certainly explains the impending Die Hard 4, and in fact the majority of American cinema – brainless, funny, disposable, and gone from your mind once the credits stop rolling.

And when a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes along, which casts rubber-faced funnyman Jim Carrey in a mind-bending exercise about truth, memory and the futility of love, I think quite a lot of moviegoers feel like they’ve been tricked. They signed on for a funny romance, and they got a desperately sad maze of ideas. It’s almost like someone pre-empted NASCAR for a physics lecture, only moviegoers have paid their nine bucks and can’t change the channel.

The same goes for music. Most folks relegate music to the background of their lives, scoring their own experiences and matching their own moods. So when an artist decides to create something trickier, something that demands attention and concentration, I think people find themselves annoyed with it, especially if it’s by an artist that has delivered easily digestible material before. That’s one of the many reasons you’ll never see a rock opera by Usher, for example. It’s also why most pop albums follow the same two or three styles all the way through – 17 disposable tracks adhering to a formula makes for successfully pleasing background noise.

And it’s not that pop music fans don’t think, or don’t have ideas, it’s just that they don’t want or expect them from their entertainment. I think that’s because the industry has taken the focus off of artistry and onto lifestyle, marketing everything as stylish and fun. The sales machine is oddly more honed in the music world – it’s very easy to distinguish, just from the cover art most times, the “serious” art from the formulaic static, which makes either one pretty easy to avoid, depending on your preference.

Here’s the thing: genuinely thoughtful, thought-provoking music is out there, but I’ve come to the conclusion that people need to discover it on their own. The problem is that even if you’re looking for it, it’s hard to find, because the marketing machine keeps it on the sidelines, out of the public consciousness. Big labels don’t want you to find something ambitious and powerful that you might like, they want you to down a steady diet of what they’re selling.

So if even those seeking out this type of music will have a hard time finding it, and most of the American population couldn’t give a damn, then why do artists make challenging works to begin with? The simple answer is the most difficult to explain to most people – it’s because they have to. They’re wired to take on the big concepts, and too skilled to allow audience indifference to dictate their direction. Hard as it may be to grasp, for some artists, asking “who’s going to like this?” isn’t even a concern.

Granted, that mentality flowers more in places like Europe, where the American marketing virus has not fully spread – just look at the difference between American and European films. Or look at the catch-all genre that is progressive rock, which has a much larger measure of support in Europe than here. Progressive has become a term for anything that exhibits conceptual development and complex musical composition – anything that requires multiple listens and some concentrated study to fully grasp. And lately, the best of that seems to come from across the Atlantic.

All of this is just a lengthy preamble to discussing an album that nearly slipped past me last year, but one that has taken over my stereo and my head-space quite effectively since then. I’ve bought quite a bit of music already this year, but I keep coming back to this one, and I keep mulling it over and humming it. And I mention the preceding theories here because this album is one that evidences years of thought and planning, one that wears its big brain proudly.

It’s the new one by Swedish band Pain of Salvation, and it’s simply called Be.

Now, right off, this record establishes itself as the musical equivalent of a thesis paper, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, at least you can’t accuse PoS of tricking you. The song titles are all in faux-Latin (or faux-Italian, or some variation thereof), they have subtitles, and the album is broken up into five suites, each with pseudo-Latin titles and subtitles of their own. Just track four, for example, is called “Pluvius Aestivus,” subtitled “Of Summer Rain (Homines Fabula Initium),” and is part three of a suite called “Animae Partus,” subtitled “All in the Image Of.” And that one’s an instrumental, to boot.

As much as you might ponder Be, rest assured that PoS mastermind Daniel Gildenlow has pondered it more. The central thesis of Be is that God created the universe to teach him about himself, making man small shards of a very large mirror. The album also details the story of mankind’s search for God, building a probe that, in the end, becomes God. (Or something like that.) It’s a cyclical examination of origins and rebirthings that poses more questions than it answers, but Gildenlow has provided an exhaustive list of reference materials on the band’s site should you want to explore the concept further.

Really, how many albums come with a list of reference material? Be has been written off by many as pretentious twaddle, probably without cracking open the CD case, because it tackles big ideas with an even bigger sense of its own importance. The album doesn’t hold your hand – it presents massive concepts with an all-inclusive musical explosion that shifts and morphs for its whole running time. No two songs sound the same here (discounting reprises), because, as Gildenlow would say, the concept transcends time and place – it happens everywhere, and circles and winds around itself repeatedly.

But beyond the concept, how is Be as 70 minutes of music? Well… breathtaking, really. It’s full of sound effects and color, and even the simplest of its songs contain hidden depths. It opens with a rush, the sound of God birthing into existence, a heartbeat, and a male/female monologue about what it means to be. This is followed by three minutes of blistering heaviness beneath a newscast-style monologue detailing the population explosion on earth, as a way of conveying the fractal nature of God. In rapid succession, then, come a flute-and-acoustics jig concerning seasons and rebirth, a lovely piano instrumental and a more modern-sounding rock-with-strings piece about the impermanence of death.

And that’s just the first 20 minutes. If that’s not enough to make you run screaming from this record, then it may just be for you. The mish-mash of styles never lets up – I have heard criticism that track five, “Lilium Cruentus,” is the album’s first real song, and if by “real song” one means “guitar-based rock with verses and a chorus,” then one would be right. But typical structure is not the point here. Immediately following “Lilium” is “Nauticus,” a lovely five-minute gospel moan, and “Dea Pecuniae,” a 10-minute epic (subdivided into three parts, naturally) that sounds like David Lee Roth’s favorite waltz. Nothing here is what you’d expect, even if you’re familiar with Pain of Salvation. (I wasn’t – I only picked up earlier albums after hearing Be.)

The first few times through, Be can feel like a scattered mess. Songs are internally consistent, but the threads between them need a few listens to discern. (And the liner notes help.) Still, even on first encounter, there are a couple of tracks that stand out as particularly powerful. Most notable is “Vocari Dei,” a gorgeous collection of answering machine messages. Let me explain that: while making Be, the band asked its fans to call a certain number and pretend they were leaving messages on God’s machine. Gildenlow then strung those together and composed a lilting instrumental for the background. The result is stunning – the messages are heartfelt and aching, coming from all corners of the globe. At the end, when a shaky British voice apologizes for “really screwing things up this time,” the effect is nearly immobilizing.

The climax of the album is “Iter Impius,” a piano-led stunner that adds a layer of unquenchable sadness to the idea of being God. Melodically, this is the closest Be comes to earlier PoS albums, and is the best thing this album has going for it. Gildenlow’s voice is deep and strong, and he tears into this piece. In the end, the album cycles back upon itself for “Martius/Nauticus II” (which contains bits of “Nauticus” and “Imago”) and “Animae Partus II,” ending where it began – breath, heartbeat, “I am.” It’s quite the journey.

Be is not about individual songs, though – it’s about conveying the vastness of its own concept, playing on a grand scale. It avoids the trap of most concept albums by not spelling out its plot in hackneyed “then-this-happened” scene structures, but rather giving us the experience of time the way God might see it, all at once. It speaks to grand themes and huge questions, and is still a swell piece of enjoyable music. It sidesteps its own pretension, in a way, by drafting such a massive scope. The album itself cannot help but be less pretentious than its inspiration.

But you know, I’ve had this problem with the word “pretentious” for some time now, and I think this ties in neatly with my earlier point about the industry’s marketing. To me, having something to say and saying it over 70 (or 120, or 240) deliriously complex minutes isn’t pretentious, because it doesn’t waste my time. Three Doors Down, now, they’re pretentious for assuming that I’d want to spend even 40 minutes listening to them rehash bland rock formulas. They’re wasting my time. Be is a stunningly original and superbly crafted work that rewards my repeated listens with new colors and new insights. It’s not pretentious to me if you actually do have a point of view and a way to express it.

But then, I like to be challenged by my art, and Pain of Salvation have definitely come through for me on that score. There are some dismal-selling records that I wish more people would hear, because they would appeal to most everyone. Be is not one of those. It requires knowledge and appreciation of at least a dozen musical forms, a willingness to follow threads of a concept through non-adjacent songs, and the patience to listen to a 70-minute album at least five or six times before it starts making sense.

If you can do all that, then Be is a masterpiece waiting for you to discover it. I can’t imagine that most people will be bothered to try it, and while I certainly do think it’s their loss, I can’t blame them. This record will make you think. I have no idea who the band had in mind when they created this work, but I’m glad I found it. If you like music that stimulates your brain and your imagination, and doesn’t just fill the space around you with pleasant nothingness, you should find it, too.

Next week, Julian Cope returns with the wonderfully titled Citizen Cain’d.

See you in line Tuesday morning.